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The Big Switch

Decarbonizing a Pervasive Industry: Petrochemicals Part 1


Alexandria: [00:00:00] So I’m calling because I have another challenge for you. [00:00:04][3.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:00:04] Okay. What is it this time? [00:00:07][2.8]

Alexandria: [00:00:08] Have you ever heard of a zero waste YouTube influencer? [00:00:12][3.7]

Melissa Lott: [00:00:15] No, but my imagination is going completely wild based on just that phrase. And I’m incredibly curious. [00:00:20][5.3]

Alexandria: [00:00:21] During the pandemic, I got really addicted to these videos of people who basically try not to throw anything away. And what they’ll do is they’ll collect all of their trash that they would normally throw away into these little mason jars, and that will be their trash for like an entire year. So as an experiment, I wanted to see if you and I could be like, zero waste YouTube influencers for a week. [00:00:43][21.8]

Melissa Lott: [00:00:49] I guess. Sure, why not? Like, I don’t think I have enough mason jars, though, if I’m honest. [00:00:54][4.2]

Alexandria: [00:00:55] Because the reason I want to do this is I was thinking about plastics and petrochemicals, and they’re so pervasive and they’re in things that I bet I don’t even notice that I use. [00:01:03][8.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:01:11] Petrochemicals. Chances are you haven’t heard that word before, but you probably use petrochemicals every single day. These are chemicals that are actually made out of oil. And through a process called refining, that oil is turned into plastics, but also a bunch of other stuff. I’m talking household cleaning products and drugs, the fertilizers that we use to grow our food and even the materials in our clothes. These chemicals are quite literally woven into the fabric of everything around us, and this industry produces a lot of emissions. Overall, 12% of all the oil that’s pulled out of the ground today is used to make chemicals. And the chemicals industry generates more than 10% of all the CO2 emissions from the industrial sector. So how can we decarbonize it? As inspiration for our challenge. I checked out some of these zero waste influencers that Alexandra had mentioned. It turns out that these folks are really good at not throwing anything away, and they have these teeny, tiny little mason jars that the years of trash inside of them. [00:02:11][59.7]

Lauren Singer: [00:02:11] So now I’ve emptied out my entire jar of trash from the past four years. And now we will go through everything and see what’s actually in there. [00:02:20][8.4]

Melissa Lott: [00:02:20] This is Lauren Singer. She goes by trash is for tossers on YouTube and she’s emptying a tiny mason jar out onto a table. It’s four years worth of trash, according to Lauren. [00:02:30][9.7]

Lauren Singer: [00:02:31] Everything in my mason jar is made of plastic, and it’s plastic that isn’t currently recyclable in the New York City recycling program. Tons of produce stickers. These are. [00:02:42][11.3]

Melissa Lott: [00:02:42] All plastic. [00:02:43][0.8]

Lauren Singer: [00:02:43] Price tag holders that connect the price tag to a piece of clothing. These are lids from vitamins or apple cider vinegar. This is more Saran Wrap Band-Aids, both made of plastic. [00:02:56][12.2]

Melissa Lott: [00:02:57] Watching this video, I’m kind of amazed. I mean, I think that I’m an environmentally conscious person. But her four year stash of trash is less than I throw out or recycle every day. The petrochemicals are in so much more than just the Band-Aids and Saran Wrap, which makes our challenge hard because we’re not just looking for trash. We’re looking for those invisible chemicals inside the products that we use every single day. [00:03:19][22.2]

Alexandria: [00:03:19] I’m curious. Like I said, I feel like there’s just going to be so many things that you notice. I don’t because I have this narrow vision of like petrochemicals in my head as just plastics. But I know they’re in so many more things than just that. [00:03:31][12.0]

Melissa Lott: [00:03:32] Yeah. So I’m thinking about plastics. I’m thinking about, like, dyes and stuff. I mean, petrochemicals. They they touch a lot. So this is going to be interesting. Oh, you do remember I have a small child in my house, right? This. This will be this will be challenging. I mean, I’m going to see how far we can go. I mean, why not? This is the big switch, a show about how to rebuild the energy systems that are all around us. To slow climate change. We need to transform our buildings, homes, cars and the economy as quickly as possible. But how do we do it right? [00:04:10][37.7]

Melissa Lott: [00:04:18] I’m Dr. Melissa Lott, and I’m the director of research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. And I study the technologies and systems that power our world. [00:04:27][9.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:04:32] When our producer Alexandra, pitched this idea of collecting all of our trash for a week, it felt kind of impossible. [00:04:37][5.3]

Alexandria: [00:04:38] Okay, so Melissa will check in next week. Sounds good. We’ll see you. [00:04:42][3.9]

Melissa Lott: [00:04:42] Then. Impossible. Not because I couldn’t keep track of my trash for that long, but because, like we’ve said before, plastics are just the tip of the iceberg for the petrochemicals industry. Most of us don’t even know about the majority of the petrochemicals that are in the products that we use every single day. So where would we draw the line in our experiment? [00:05:00][17.7]

Deborah Gordon: [00:05:04] If I look around where I’m sitting here, everything around me has some form of petrochemical in it. The plastic of my desk, the sweater I’m wearing, the medicine I took this morning, the toothpaste. I brush my teeth with, the pajamas I wore to bed last night, the insulation in my house, you know that. That’s protecting me. It’s all petrochemicals. [00:05:25][20.7]

Melissa Lott: [00:05:26] That’s Deborah Gordon. She’s a senior principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Climate Intelligence Program, and she has spent years thinking about and researching the petrochemicals at history. [00:05:36][9.3]

Deborah Gordon: [00:05:36] This industry is on a growth curve. It’s projected to grow like 3 to 4% annually, maybe double by 2040. So this is going to get harder before it gets easier. This industry grew up in the 1930. We were not thinking about climate change in 1930. And so I think that the proposition now is remaking this industry amid climate change, because we can’t get off of everything quickly. [00:06:05][28.7]

Melissa Lott: [00:06:13] So talking about building understanding, I want to dig in to what is the chemicals industry. So when I say the chemicals industry, I know that it can include like thousands of types of different products. But what are like the top end uses for these chemicals today? Where do I see them when I’m looking around my home or my office? [00:06:32][19.1]

Deborah Gordon: [00:06:33] Well, I think this is very poorly understood by the public. When we talk about oil, specifically oil, I would say we think gasoline like you think your corner gas station. But oil and gas come out of the ground together most often. And gas and oil go to so many petroleum products. The one least understood is petrochemicals. It’s not the stuff that we see raw, like we would see gasoline, you know, at the pump because it’s baked into everything, literally everything. And it’s just the reality of our lives that we can’t just get off petrochemicals. [00:07:09][36.3]

Melissa Lott: [00:07:10] So here’s a question I have, and we can think about the world around us and all of the end uses all the things that these petrochemicals lead to and create. But stepping back a minute between the well, where the, you know, oil and gas comes out of the well and then the end use like my clothes that I’m wearing, I want to talk about the intermediate steps and what are some of the key chemicals that we should just know about that we should know are actually in those middle steps between the well and my home? [00:07:37][26.7]

Deborah Gordon: [00:07:38] I mean, these are going to be names that people don’t necessarily recognize. Again, it’s it’s it’s very hidden. I mean, maybe if you took a chemistry course in high school or in college, you’ll understand some of these chemicals. But the big ones are ammonia, which I think people would know because of household cleaning products. Ethylene is a huge intermediary that fans out into so many petrochemical products. It’s probably one of the most valuable. So that is a very common petrochemical that people probably haven’t necessarily heard of up the chain. One is propylene that makes like PVC piping. So these are like everyday things that you could buy at Home Depot that you have no idea what petrochemicals have made them. [00:08:24][45.9]

Melissa Lott: [00:08:24] So that’s ammonia, ethylene and propylene, three big chemicals that show up in a bunch of stuff that we use every day. The processes behind making them what’s known as refining produce a whole lot of greenhouse gas emissions. I’m trying to think about the last step. So we’ve focused on where we see these petrochemicals in our houses and our buildings out in our world. What happens at the end of the life for these chemicals? Like, where does that carbon go? [00:08:53][28.3]

Deborah Gordon: [00:08:54] I would say that’s just as complicated as the making of it. I almost feel like in petrochemicals, the consumption of them, like your plastic cup is the easiest, most visible part of this chain. But how it got there and what happens to it later is really difficult to know. There’s such little so little transparency associated with both the lead up to that cup, you know, processing it, how it got there. Now, what happens after the fact? Okay, It’s not just your cup. It’s like medicines and paints and solvents and and and industrial chemicals that are thrown away. You know, when they’re it’s you have too much or it’s out of date or you are not painting your house that color anymore. You know, these are chemicals that it’s not just the solid petrochemicals but even all the liquid petrochemicals. They go into these resource recovery sites, they sometimes get burned, they sometimes get stored, they sometimes get poorly disposed of, thrown down drains. It’s it’s really all of the above. [00:10:01][67.5]

Melissa Lott: [00:10:06] So when we talk about going to net zero and the chemicals industry, what are the biggest levers that we can pull to help us get emissions down and get us on the path to net zero for chemicals? [00:10:16][10.1]

Deborah Gordon: [00:10:17] We know often where we would need to go. That’s not been our problem in this energy clean energy transition pathway. How to get there is always where, you know, I think for decades now we’ve been stuck up. So for the chemical petrochemical industry, the long term goal, I would say, is a combination of green hydrogen and CO2 captured from the atmosphere. [00:10:42][24.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:10:43] Green hydrogen. If you haven’t heard of it before, this is a fuel that’s made using renewable energy. And Deborah is explaining how we can use green hydrogen instead of fossil fuels in the industrial processes that make these chemicals carbon capture. The second thing that she mentioned is where we pull carbon dioxide from a smokestack or from the atmosphere. We know how to make green hydrogen and also how to capture carbon, but we haven’t done either at a very large scale quite yet. [00:11:08][25.3]

Deborah Gordon: [00:11:08] You’re using the electrolysis of water with renewables to create hydrogen. You’re really combining hydrogen and carbon to make certain things that we can’t get off of. [00:11:17][8.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:11:17] One thing we often hear about in other parts of industry is heat and how do we produce the heat? We need to create the things we want in a way that doesn’t produce emissions. How important is heat and chemicals and what are our options for getting the carbon out of that heat? [00:11:32][14.1]

Deborah Gordon: [00:11:32] Heat is instrumental. I would say it’s the most important part of how all these chemicals go from raw feedstock to stuff and that he I mean, imagine living without your stove or that your little hot pot or without your hot water and your sake. I mean, you can’t live without heat that has to be produced by renewables. There’s just no way around it. [00:11:53][20.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:11:53] So we’ve stepped through kind of different things we can do in the middle, you know, with all the different molecules we need, we can replace them. We can use bio based things, you know, renewables. We can use stuff that we pull out of the air carbon that we capture. We can heat things up using renewables and hydrogen and all those things. What about on the consumption side? What about on my side? What can we do to reduce emissions from that point in the chain? [00:12:17][24.1]

Deborah Gordon: [00:12:18] The use side is complicated, not because it’s it’s unimportant, it’s vital. I mean, this is a market and it exists on supply and demand. So everything we do drives the supply of how it happens. And we need to complete that circle. It can’t just be consumers responsibility, nor can it just be industries responsibility. It’s a composite market. [00:12:41][22.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:12:42] And that brings us back to our little experiment about our own consumption. How big is your bag. [00:12:49][7.8]

Alexandria: [00:12:50] In your bag? It’s about this big. [00:12:52][1.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:12:53] Oh, that’s very reasonable. [00:12:54][0.9]

Alexandria: [00:12:55] Yeah, the exercise was kind of fun for me because I was like, just keeping little things in my pocket and people were like, Why are you washing out that quart container in the bathroom of this bar in your jacket pocket? [00:13:06][11.7]

Melissa Lott: [00:13:07] Oh, my God. [00:13:08][0.4]

Alexandria: [00:13:08] And I and I actually carried this bag around with me for a while, like. So people were like, Why do you have this bag full of trash? [00:13:15][7.2]

Melissa Lott: [00:13:17] You said. [00:13:18][0.3]

Alexandria: [00:13:23] So let’s see what I’ve got here. I’ve got some packaging from a couple of things that were delivered to my apartment. And then I’ve got a bag that has a container in it, and then I’ve got a empty bottle of canola oil and some energy bar wrappers and a container that formerly held takeouts. [00:13:48][24.5]

Melissa Lott: [00:13:49] I had my list. I wrote down all the things that I thought we should talk about. So it’s like what was in my trash? So the major things that I am confident have petrochemicals involved. I had some leftover flooring because we’re replacing the flooring. I had two iced tea cups that were plastic. I had some plastic film, especially around my bananas. I had one diaper for every evening because my child was at that stage of life. A few baby wipes, but not many. I had a couple of different things that were rubber, some leftover paints that had dried up at the bottom of the little tub and some out-of-date drugs. I had one pack of plant food. We had to get our windshield replaced, and I think that qualifies. Oh, your windshields, apparently laminated glass and your side windows on your car are tempered glass. And I think I went down the rabbit hole on the laminated glass, and it seems to go down to propylene, which I was thinking about polypropylene. So I kept going and I think my windshield actually has some petrochemicals in it. [00:14:47][57.3]

Alexandria: [00:14:47] But that was a very thorough accounting. We when we started this, I was thinking of petrochemicals kind of narrowly as plastics. And as the week went on, I started to realize more and more that I was doing kind of a bad job. Of this task because I was thinking about all of the things that I don’t conceive of as petrochemicals that I am using and encountering in my daily life, like, as you mentioned, like the pill bottles. [00:15:19][31.3]

Melissa Lott: [00:15:19] The other thing I kept thinking about was just how complicated due to the supply chains was behind each thing I was looking at. And that’s that’s tricky. And what would I do if I actually wanted to replace it? I asked Deborah about this, like, what’s the path to getting to net zero in the petrochemicals industry? If someone asked you for directions or a roadmap to how we can decarbonize the chemical industry, what would you tell them? What would the manual look like of Here’s how you do it? [00:15:48][28.6]

Deborah Gordon: [00:15:48] I think that we’re going to need to use fewer fossil fuels throughout the entire supply chain in terms of manufacturing chemicals starting to bring the renewables in. And at the same time, you know, through like ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Program at Tillawi and others, we’re going to need to find these other pathways, the pathways that go backwards, I would call them with director capture and green hydrogen, really thinking outside the box of how we support what remains of the petrochemical industry in a whole new way, you know, not on the backs of 100 year old oil and gas sector, which is going to change. [00:16:28][40.0]

Melissa Lott: [00:16:29] When we’re talking about all the different steps to getting to net zero across an economy. The phrase that are used around industry is it’s one of the stickiest parts of this whole thing to actually unstick and pulled net zero. I think within industry chemicals is maybe the stickiest of the sticky. I mean it’s just it’s in everything. It’s got so many different dynamics, so many different players. And it was built, as you said, for the 1930s, not the 2030s. [00:16:57][27.5]

Deborah Gordon: [00:16:58] We really have to kind of remake this industry surgically and we can’t just say we’re not going to demand these things. I think that’s too simple. We can use less of certain things. That’s great. We can substitute other things. That’s wonderful, but it’s going to be very hard for us to say tomorrow. I don’t need anything that oil and gas springs. [00:17:17][19.2]

Melissa Lott: [00:17:21] So what does this mean for our little experiment of living like zero waste influencers? [00:17:25][3.8]

Alexandria: [00:17:26] I think the interview made me very pessimistic about the capacity of myself as an individual to contribute anything to the plastics problem. Like it seemed to me after the interview, I was like, okay, for this to make a difference in terms of climate change, like there really has to be a change in the industrial process behind all of the things that I’m holding. [00:17:44][18.5]

Melissa Lott: [00:17:45] It’s interesting because I think of it in an optimistic way. We’re talking billions of people or thousands of facilities that produce these things, and I get excited about the ability to change thousands of things instead of billions of things. That seems like a much more manageable challenge to me. They’re huge, those thousands of things. They’re massive facilities and huge, you know, supply chains behind them, but it’s far fewer of them. So that gives me a bit of hope, actually. Yeah. [00:18:13][28.1]

Alexandria: [00:18:14] We don’t have to all become zero waste lifestyle influencers. [00:18:16][2.6]

Melissa Lott: [00:18:19] No, I don’t invest in mason jars and start lining them. And that’s our show. I’m taking you out to the curb. After this call, my partner will be selling food. Like, can we stop counting trash? [00:18:37][18.3]

Alexandria: [00:18:39] And just in time for trash day. [00:18:40][1.1]

Melissa Lott: [00:18:43] If you like this episode, then you’re in luck. This was the first of our two part series on the petrochemical industry. And next time on the Big Switch, we’re going to talk about the petrochemical industry and environmental justice. The big switch is produced by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, in partnership with Post-Script Media. This episode was produced by Daniel Waldorf and Alexandria. Her story editing by Ann Bailey. Theme Music Mixing and Scoring by Sean Marquand. A special thanks to our Columbia team Kirsten Smith, Kyu Lee, Liz Smith, and Natalie Volk. Our executive editor is Steven Lacy. I’m Dr. Melissa Lott. And this is the big switch. [00:18:43][0.0]


Petrochemicals. You might not have heard of them, but you certainly use them every day. These chemicals, made from oil, are in almost everything – plastics, medicines, clothes, toothpaste, even the insulation in your home. 

So how can we decarbonize an industry that makes such a pervasive product? 

This week, we spoke with climate solutions expert Deborah Gordon about how we can cut carbon emissions from the petrochemicals industry. And producer Alexandria Herr and Melissa Lott go on a mission to become zero-waste influencers – and find the petrochemicals hidden in their everyday lives.

Guest: Deborah Gordon is a senior principal in the Climate Intelligence Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The Big Switch is produced by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy in partnership with Post Script Media. This episode was produced by Alexandria Herr and Daniel Woldorff. Theme music and mixing by Sean Marquand. Story editing by Anne Bailey. A special thanks to Natalie Volk, Kirsten Smith and Kyu Lee. Our executive editor is Stephen Lacey.